In 2016, famed crime novelist James Patterson and co-authors Tim Malloy and John Connolly published Filthy Rich: A Powerful Billionaire, the Sex Scandal that Undid Him, and All the Justice that Money Can Buy: The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein. Patterson had heard about the story of the mysterious billionaire who’d gotten a sweetheart deal after having been charged with sex with underage girls, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “It seemed just impossible that this could happen,” he says. “The more I dug into it, the more insane it seemed.”

Yet after the book came out, laying out the breadth of Epstein’s crimes and how a cadre of enablers and hangers-on enabled him for years, it got relatively little attention, particularly from the large networks. “Nobody really thought it was a story,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And I’m like, ‘Are you shitting me? This thing hasn’t really been covered. Epstein’s on the loose in New York. How can you say it’s not a story?’”

By 2019, of course, that had obviously changed. The Miami Herald had published its bombshell investigation into the 13-month deal then-Florida attorney general Alexander Acosta had offered Epstein, allowing him to serve little hard jail time despite having been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution. The piece also outlined how dozens of then-underage girls were offered a few hundred dollars to come to Epstein’s home to give him a massage, only for him to sexually abuse them. In August 2019, Epstein was arrested and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking, only to be found dead in his jail cell under mysterious circumstances a month later.

A new Netflix series, Filthy Rich, based on Patterson’s book, documents all of the lurid details familiar to those who’ve been following the story — the Trump/Clinton connections, the bizarre relationship with British heiress and alleged procurer Ghislaine Maxwell, the allegations of Epstein’s “eggplant-shaped” penis. But it also includes heartbreaking interviews with the young women who say they were victimized by Epstein, adding humanity to the familiar tabloid story. “I always felt the real story was the girls,” says Patterson. “[And] in 2008, nobody cared about them. The state didn’t care about them. The media didn’t care about them. Nobody cared about the girls.”

Rolling Stone spoke with Patterson earlier this month about Filthy Rich, Epstein-related conspiracy theories, Bill Clinton, and why Alan Dershowitz just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

What was your awareness of Jeffrey Epstein when you were living in West Palm Beach?
Zero. I think most people weren’t. I don’t think he socialized much down here. I think he socialized a lot in New York, but I don’t think people really knew him down here. And it’s not like you’re going to run around and go like, oh, you got these 14 year olds I’m bringing over to my place. They’re not going to talk about that. I even know somebody who lives on the [same] street and they had no idea. So I think he was kind of a mystery man down here. Carl Hiaasen said, “well, people must have known.” I don’t think people did know. I mean, he was always a mysterious guy. But the mystery was always like, how the heck did he get his money?

I thought it was really interesting how the series sort of highlights the socioeconomic differences between where Epstein lived and the areas where he procured his girls and I was wondering, like if you can talk about that.
Tim and I did a documentary called Murder of a Small Town. And it was about Newburgh, New York, where I grew up, which is a small town, and was at that point ranked the sixth most violent small town America. And then Belle Glade, which is in Palm Beach County, was ranked number one most violent small town in America. Palm Beach County is actually the biggest agricultural county in Florida. The whole western part of the county, it’s very poor, much poorer than than where these girls came from. Palm Beach obviously is very wealthy. Then the middle is middle class, lower middle class. And then the far western part of Palm Beach County is extremely poor. So it’s a real mixed bag here. But they were getting the girls kind of from the middle part of Palm Beach County for the most part.

The fact that the girls were from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum — did that play a role in Epstein’s crimes going unnoticed for so long?
The money, I’m sure they saw as attractive. I mean, it was a lot of money for a kid, a couple hundred dollars, you know, once a week or a couple of times a week. So that was a factor. I think most of them were frightened of what he was capable of. You know, some of them seemed to be very close to him, at least when they were kids. He would say, “I can put you through school,” so there was that piece of it. But I think a lot of it was they were afraid.

How long was the series in production?
It took longer than you would think it should have taken. That’s Hollywood, I don’t know. A, things just move slowly out there, and B, when I was writing the book, I would get letters from Epstein’s attorney every week. I knew I was going to be careful. I knew I wasn’t going to put anything in the book that I really couldn’t prove was accurate, so I wasn’t really that afraid. Hollywood is a little slower, and I think maybe there was more concern, a little bit of a fear, until Epstein died, and then I think people stopped being afraid of him. In terms of of larger forces at work.

What do you mean by larger forces?
I’m just referring to things that can get in the way of a book or a film project or legal proceedings, et cetera.

Well, did you get the impression that that was why it took longer than expected? 

I don’t know, honestly, whether there was fear beyond any of that. I’m certainly not aware of anybody reaching out to to Netflix to say, “Let’s be careful here.” I never heard about that. But it did take longer. I think a little bit of it they did change the people involved with the project at Netflix. I think that got in the way a little bit. And as I said initially, people just didn’t see this is as big a story as I thought it was. I just thought it was just so loaded as a story that I just couldn’t imagine anybody that is involved with news that wouldn’t say, “Oh my God, this is a story.” This is unbelievable to me. Imagine if somebody out in the middle of the county had been with 50 underage girls. I mean, Jesus Christ, are you kidding me? They’d put him away for the rest of his life three times.

You said that it was difficult getting them in major networks to be interested in your book when it first came out. I mean, do you get the impression that that was because of how powerful Epstein was?
I just think they didn’t get it. And also the fact that it happened a while back, even though it wasn’t covered very much back then. I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of respect for these newspeople, I don’t think they’re too fucking good. There’s a reason why these why these magazines and stuff are going under.

Why do you think they cut Epstein a deal?
You know, I think initially, even with Acosta, I think that the defense team convinced the local people that this could be another O.J. You’re going to lose because some of the girls have already been bought off so they’re not going to appear in court, [the defense is] gonna be able to shred them based on their past, and you’re going to wind up conceivably losing this thing and he is going to get off. I think they were legitimately afraid that that’s what could happen. That’s why I think it happened. I think that’s the main thing. Now, was there any other pressure? Maybe, but I don’t know where it would have come from. Honestly.

Well, there’s obviously the conspiracy theories angle which will, you know, talk about that this guy sort of made a living collecting dirt on powerful people.
I guess. But, you know, not much of it has come out. Let’s skip right to the biggest conspiracy, which I think maybe connects to the biggest conspiracy theory. Did he kill himself?

Do you think he killed himself?
Initially I thought he did. I’m more 50/50 on it now. Initially, it just seemed a little inconceivable to me [that he could have been murdered]. Then a couple of friends of mine, couple of radiologists, said they looked at the x-rays or whatever, and they said they don’t think it could have been a suicide. And as I started to open my mind to that, the most logical explanation to me as a crime novelist would be people that traffic. We suspected Epstein was involved with with people who are pretty heavy in trafficking women. And I think that’s a very scary group. Peter Landesman, who was involved in the beginning, had done a big piece in The New York Times Magazine about trafficking women, and always felt that was the biggest story. But I also thought it was the hardest one to really get into and prove anything. So if I had to go back and go, is there any any group, you know, that maybe could have, you know, had somebody in jail, and if he was actually killed, I would say it would be people trafficking women, and that Epstein had some names or some contacts that he might have been capable of giving up. This is just a novelist fantasizing, but in terms of conspiracy theories, that’s the one to me that tracks a little bit. With the documentary and the book, I would have liked to have talked to a couple of of law officers who deal with trafficking of women. I would have liked to heard a little bit more about that.

Do you think that Epstein would have been arrested had the #MeToo movement not happened?
Interestingly, when we did reach out to women involved in the #MeToo movement, they didn’t really help. Once again, nobody cared about the girls. And I don’t know if it’s that they didn’t want these girls, some of whom had a little bit of tainted pasts. But we reached out and we really had trouble mostly getting people involved with #MeToo and saying this is a horrifying thing that happened to these girls, which surprised me. I just wonder if they just didn’t want people to say, well, they were just young prostitutes, which I don’t think is accurate. But that may have been the reluctance. 

The series talks about women like Sarah Kellen and Nadia Marcinkova who were his accomplices. And I was wondering, why did it not dig deeper into these women’s stories?
We just couldn’t get in contact with them. Same with the book. And, you know, look, there were X number of people who got the waiver from any criminal charges. And there’s no way that the people who got that would want to be involved with this documentary or the book.

What do you think Ghislaine Maxwell’s motivations were?
I don’t know. I never talked to her. If I don’t have evidence, I just won’t get into it, you know? For example, with Trump, our investigation turned up nothing. In fact, I talked to the woman that ran the spa at Mira Lago and I said, “Did you know Jeffrey Epstein?” And she said, “Oh, yes, I did. “And he was not a member but he did go there on occasion. And she said he would he would go come to the spot and he was inappropriate with some young women there. And she said, I went to see Mr. Trump — at that point he was not president, obviously — and Trump banned him from the club. And you’ll even see, like The New York Times, like in the second and third paragraphs, throwing names like Trump’s name or Clinton’s name. It’s like, if you’ve got something that make a story out of it, don’t just say, well, somebody knew somebody, therefore, that’s supposed to mean something. You know, Stephen Hawking knew him. Stephen Hawking did go to Lolita Island. So, you know, you’re going to put Stephen Hawking’s name in the first paragraph? Give me a break. That to me is shoddy journalism. 

Did you ever speak to Bill Clinton directly about Epstein?

What did he say?
He knew him, he didn’t consider him to be a friend. I mean, you’re running a foundation. You’re doing a lot of good things, and somebody says, “we can get you a plane,” for example, the plane that went to Africa that Epstein supplied on at least one of the trips. And that’s when Clinton and Bush were working on trying to help the situation with AIDS in Africa. Nobody does like, oh, let’s do a pleasure trip and have a fun time, we’re all gonna go to Africa, you know. Even there, when you get into this thing about there were 20 trips [Fox News has reported that Clinton flew 26 times on Epstein’s private plane], whatever the hell. It was more that there was one trip to Africa and there were, like, ten stops on that one trip.

You’re obviously a collaborator of Clinton’s. [Patterson and Clinton wrote a novel together and are working on a second book.] Did you speak to him about the allegations in the series?
I had done the book on an Epstein before he and I worked on a novel. So we were not at that stage. We weren’t friendly here, hadn’t worked together. We found nothing. And we talked to some people that had piloted planes. We found nothing on him. Zero. We found nothing on him, we found nothing on Trump, we found nothing on Dershowitz.

The series heavily implies that Clinton is lying at least about the fact that he visited him on Little St. James.
Well what does that mean, heavily implied? They interviewed one person who, I don’t know what to make of him. We uncovered nothing on Clinton. And had there been anything, I would’ve put it in the book. I don’t know what to make of that one fellow. [Patterson is referring to Steve Scully, a former Epstein employee and IT worker on the island, who alleges he saw Clinton there; Virginia Giuffre, an Epstein accuser, also reports having seen him on the island.] I don’t know what to make of what he had to say. I do know that my experience is that Clinton has never traveled without Secret Service. If it is accurate, then it should be in the Secret Service logs. So I have no evidence of that. That’s one of the issues that I have. Just because somebody says something, like with Virginia and Dershowitz. I’m not a big fan of “Virginia says, ‘I was with Dershowitz” and then up comes the title and it says Dershowitz denies it. I don’t know that you can put that out. I don’t know if he can put Virginia up there unless you have more verification than just her saying it, I think. That’s my opinion about it.

Why do you think Dershowitz agreed to do an interview?
I think he’s adamant that nothing happened with he and Virginia. In fact, his wife was interviewed as well. We didn’t use it. But I think he’s adamant that nothing happened with Virginia.

What do you think Ghislaine Maxwell is doing now?
Who knows? It is fascinating that nobody can find her — and truly, nobody can find her. That’s right. I mean, once again, if people it’s like all of these, you know, the story becomes a part of your life to some extent, and they want everything all wrapped up at the end. Novelists can do that. We can wrap everything up if we choose to. But in real life, it doesn’t happen. So people want the definitive answer: Did he kill himself or did he was he murdered? What happened to Ghislaine Maxwell, and where is she and what was her involvement? But everything just isn’t going to be gift-wrapped for us and tied up in a nice bow, apparently. I would suspect that at some point she will surface again….I don’t think you can just keep disappearing.

Do you think there will be charges brought against her?
I was a little surprised that ultimately the charges were brought against Epstein, and it was because they felt they could get them on counts of what he had done in New York. I don’t know what she’s done. I don’t know what she did in New York or what she did elsewhere.

Why did it surprise you?
It just seemed like he was he was Teflon. He was just gonna keep getting away with stuff. It’s a little surprising that he got so cock sure of himself that he just felt he he could do what he had always done and he wouldn’t get caught…. I’m delighted that that one that that the justice on some level was served here, that he did get his just desserts. I just didn’t expect it to happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.